Let the sun shine – Even in Wisconsin, solar energy projects are multiplying
MADISON, Wis., August 9, 2018 – Wisconsin state government isn’t exactly a champion of green energy these days. One analyst has called the state “an island of renewable-energy stagnation amid a sea of growth.”
But Eric Udelhofen, project developer for OneEnergy Renewables’ midwest branch, has hope.
“I think there is a lot of opportunity in Wisconsin for renewable energy,” Udelhofen says. “There aren’t necessarily specific state programs that incentivize large renewable energy projects, but I think the cost has come down enough.”
OneEnergy, which develops community and utility-scale solar projects around the country, is working on a series of solar projects in the region. In April, the Middleton Common Council gave initial approval for a 5 megawatt solar array on land at Morey Field municipal airport. If the airport commission, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics give their okay, construction would begin next spring. The project would be generating power by the end of 2019, Udelhofen says.
And, it would be the largest solar project in the state. But Udelhofen says it’s a record that won’t stand for very long. He notes that there are two more projects in the works, including an 8 megawatt array planned at the Dane County Regional Airport, that would triple the amount of solar in the state when they come online in 2020 and 2021. The company is also working on a large-scale project with Organic Valley, the cooperative food company made up of more than 2,000 family farms.
“In aggregate there are roughly 80 megawatts of solar in Wisconsin right now,” says Udelhofen, referring to the total capacity of residential, commercial and residential solar. “With the Organic Valley projects and Morey Field project we would increase that number next year by 25 percent, just with the projects we are working on.”
Madison Gas and Electric is partnering with OneEnergy to distribute the electricity generated from Morey Field. Middleton will in turn purchase renewable energy credits from MGE, says Abby Attoun, Middleton’s director of community development.
“We are thrilled that OneEnergy Renewables and Madison Gas and Electric reached out to partner with the city of Middleton on a large-scale solar array,” Attoun says. “We have been working on this project for almost two years so to see the final lease agreement approved and the project nearing construction is rewarding.”
OneEnergy Renewables was established in Portland, Oregon and has wind and solar projects throughout the Pacific Northwest. Udelhofen started a Wisconsin branch, which covers projects in the Midwest; there is another branch in Washington, D.C.
Udelhofen said his company specializes in small-scale utility projects. His customers are generally utilities, municipalities or corporations that have an interest in pursuing renewable energy but don’t have enough space.
“We work with customers that want to pursue renewable energy but go bigger than they’d typically be able to on their property,” Udelhofen says.
The project at Morey Field will get Middleton part of the way toward its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, Attoun says.
“The Middleton airport solar array will generate 9 million kWh which is double the amount of electricity the city uses for all municipal operations, including all city buildings and street lights,” Attoun says. “However, because the city isn’t consuming all of our electricity when the array is generating power, this project alone will not get us to our 100 percent goal.”
Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar says the project is a step in the right direction but the city will still depend on a utility that gets a majority of its energy from burning coal.
“When you look at the big picture, these are big steps but they make only a small dent,” Brar says. “We have to keep pushing [MGE] to use more renewable and push them to reduce the use of coal and increase the use of natural gas — that by itself is a big step.”
Brar points out that Middleton already has a solar array on top of its police station and municipal operations building.
Udelhofen says municipalities like Middleton and companies like Organic Valley are leading the way on renewable energy.
“There is a lot more customer desire for this type of project that is pushing utilities to be more open to it and be more innovative in the way they can serve their customers,” Udelhofen says. “The existence of that type of customer, coupled with a favorable climate to do business, is going to attract more projects locally.”